Assessment Commentary

False Positives

By Thomas Newkirk — March 03, 2004 4 min read
Overdetection of failure—or ‘false positives’—in our schools will lead to a huge dissipation of state and local resources to deal with problems that don't exist.

Recent education reports in my home state have come to resemble a good news/bad news joke. The good news is that the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress found New Hampshire to have the best reading and mathematics scores in the country. But the bad news, reported on the same day, was that almost one- third of its schools had been designated as failing to make “adequate yearly progress,” according to guidelines set up in the No Child Left Behind Act.

Across the Piscataqua River in Maine, the same story played out. One-quarter of its schools were designated “needs to improve,” even though students scored in the top 10 percent on the national assessment. In some states, the situation was almost unimaginably worse: Ninety percent of Florida’s schools, for example, failed to meet the No Child Left Behind benchmarks.

These figures point to problems in screening similar to those in medical tests, which can fail in two major ways: They can fail to detect a problem that exists, or they can detect a problem when none exists, producing a “false positive.” Overdetection may lead to unnecessary breast or prostate surgery, and the acute anxiety that goes with it. Overdetection of failure in our schools will lead to largely successful schools’ carrying the stigma of failure, and to a huge dissipation of state and local resources to deal with problems that don’t exist (this is the true hidden, unfunded cost of the No Child Left Behind law).

Never before in American education has such a relatively small federal outlay of money leveraged such extensive federal intervention in our schools.

While adjustments in the required participation rate—now set at an unrealistic 95 percent—may alleviate the problem in the short term, the performance requirements of the No Child Left Behind legislation create a net of failure that more and more schools will fall into. If 30 percent of New Hampshire’s schools fail now, one can easily imagine—no, confidently predict— that this number will rise to 50 percent or 70 percent as the law takes full effect. For no educational innovation has ever been able to show the steady improvement for all students that is required by this law.

Schools must ratchet up their scores, in all test areas and with all subgroups, at least every two years. This is true even with special education students, where the composition of disabilities can change radically from year to year. It’s a little like requiring that every track-and-field record must be broken every two years. But as the testing continues, there will be strong cohorts of students in some years which will set levels that following classes cannot surpass despite the diligent efforts of teachers.

Nowhere is the lack of realism more apparent than in the requirement that 100 percent of students in a school reach the “proficient” level by 2014. At present, only 30 percent of New Hampshire students reach this level, an increase of 5 percentage points over the past four years. It is simply inconceivable that this figure will rise by 70 percentage points in the next 10 years (and recall we are talking about the state with some of the highest scores in the country).

Nowhere is the lack of realism more apparent than in the requirement that 100 percent of students in a school reach the ‘proficient’ level by 2014.

I realize that proponents of the No Child Left Behind law will accuse me of defeatism and cynicism. They will claim that this 100 percent figure suggests a goal, a vision for the future. There is a difference, however, between visions, on the one hand, and practical expectations written into law, on the other. I’m sure legislators would wish for a cure for pancreatic cancer; yet they would not impose a timetable on cancer researchers unless they had some reason to believe it could be accomplished. The medical profession wouldn’t stand for it. Teachers, too, know a setup when they see it.

A real cynic might ask about the true purpose of this failure machine. Who benefits from a bill that could target more than half of our nation’s schools as in need of improvement? Could it possibly be the charter schools and private education firms that can draw students from “failing schools”? A real cynic might also ask whether the concern for disadvantaged students in this federal legislation is truly part of a comprehensive plan to deal with the causes and effects of poverty in this country. Or is this educational reform the single magic bullet to deal with social inequalities?

There are, to be sure, failing schools in this country, and in my experience this failure is tied to instabilities connected with poverty and unequal funding. And there are racial gaps in performance that must be addressed. The primary value in the new federal education law is the increased awareness of these problems.

But the great story of failure engineered by the No Child Left Behind Act is misleading as well. Who, after all, can deny the extraordinary achievements of this country: our technical innovations, our industriousness, our attractiveness (and openness) to immigrants? The list can go on indefinitely. And where did the vast majority of these workers and innovators get their education, if not in our public schools? How can a system so riddled with failure produce such success?

Perhaps that is some good news to ponder.

Thomas Newkirk is a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham, N.H., and the director of the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes.

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